Japanese Cutlery: From the Battlefield to the Kitchen

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Why you should care

Because it’s not just the most important tool in the kitchen — it’s also the sexiest. 

Video by Tom Gorman

Anyone who has ever boiled a pot of water has probably heard the age-old saying that knives are the most important tool in the kitchen. And while that may be true, they’re definitely not the sexiest. In the battle between fancy blender and solitary blade, the latter will usually meet its fate. Unless, of course, that blade was forged in the hands of a Buddhist blacksmith employing ancient sword-making techniques. Then all bets are off.

Japanese cutlery first sliced into the mainstream several years back when Rachael Ray announced to the world how much she loved her santoku, a general-purpose kitchen knife. But since then, the slicing utensils have established themselves as cooking must-haves. I was first introduced to this world about a year ago when I received an 8-inch Shun chef’s knife ($175) as a gift. I’ve now added Miyabi santoku and paring knives to my collection.

The size, shape and steel type all go back to tradition.

Their appeal? For starters, Japanese knives are aesthetically chic, with many featuring bamboolike embellishments. “They have a beauty to them,” says Brendan McDermott, a Chicago culinary instructor with a focus on knife skills. They also tend to be sleeker, in shape and weight, compared with Western knives, which are wider, thicker and rounder.

The size, shape and steel type all go back to tradition. Japanese knives are made on the same premise that swords once were, valuing razorlike precision and sharpness. But food culture also comes into play. Since raw fish is a staple of the Japanese diet, chefs use intricate cuts as a way to differentiate each dish. According to Tommie Lucas, vice president of product design and development at Shun, the cut actually affects the taste. If you saw through a steak with a serrated blade, for example, you’ll lose all the juices. Slicing through with a sharp, thin edge will keep the moisture in.

But in the end, for McDermott, who recently ventured into the realm of blacksmithing himself, it all comes down to preference. As someone who cooks eight hours a day, he appreciates the lightness of Japanese blades. A lot of the hype, though, is just marketing, he says. Instead of buying a 100-piece set, he recommends picking up just three or so high-quality additions, starting with an 8-inch chef’s knife. He’ll also tell you to watch the size. The smaller it is, the more work it’ll take and the more likely you’ll be to cut yourself. And while that thicker American blade can take a beating, the thinner, delicate style will require some upkeep.

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